Syria Policy After the Chemical Attacks

Stopping the Gas, Not Toppling Assad, Should Be the Goal

A man breathes through an oxygen mask after a suspected gas attack in Idlib, Syria, April 2017. Ammar Abdullah / Reuters

The Syrian regime’s horrific chemical weapons attack Tuesday has totally inverted the U.S. policy debate on Syria. The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has whipsawed—in less than a week—from acquiescing to the continued rule of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to threatening some unspecified unilateral intervention in Syria.

The rhetoric of top U.S. officials suggests the United States may be headed toward a major new escalation in Syria. If so, any threatened U.S. action should have the narrow, clearly articulated objective of halting the use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime and deterring their use globally. It should not be aimed at achieving a negotiated political resolution to the Syrian war or any gradation of regime change—goals that were rightly judged impractical as recently as Monday.

If the United States is going to act in Syria, specificity, clarity, and realism are its friends. Vague maximalism is not. 

If the United States is going to act in Syria, specificity, clarity, and realism are its friends. Vague maximalism is not.


On Tuesday, a government air strike on the town of Khan Shaykhun, in Syria’s rebel-held northern Idlib Province, released toxic gas that reportedly left at least 70 dead and hundreds more affected. The incident looks set to be the deadliest chemical weapons attack in Syria since the Assad regime’s August 2013 nerve gas attack on the Damascus suburbs, which killed nearly 1,500 people.

The Syrian military has denied using chemical weapons, instead blaming “terrorist groups,” and Russia has claimed that a Syrian regime air strike in fact struck an insurgent chemical weapons depot. Yet the United States has asserted definitively that the regime was responsible for the attack. The Assad regime has recently used toxic gas against other insurgent-held towns, UN inspectors have found, albeit chlorine gas rather than the more deadly sarin that is believed to have been used on Tuesday. 

In response to the attack, the U.S. position on Assad flipped overnight. “

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